Alan Cumming gets chummy in his gossipy and insightful book 'Baggage'

Celia Wren
Washington Post

Dinner with Alan Cumming would be wonderful, wouldn't it? If only it were possible for the likes of you and me. Thankfully, the actor's diverting new memoir reads as if Cumming is across the table, reeling off piquant and revelatory personal anecdotes over a meal and a couple of bottles of prosecco. Told in an exuberant voice, with ample humor, delightful asides and exclamation points, "Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life" serves up reminiscences that are both intimate and glittery. There's Faye Dunaway at the Grammy's weighing tuna salad on a portable scale, Gore Vidal downing a forkful of wasabi at a drunken dinner at his villa in Ravello and Cumming himself stealing a butter dish from a hotel while filming "Emma." Cumming has some wild tales — and he's prepared to share.

Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life

That's not to say the book is superficial. For one thing, it touches on Cumming's memories of being abused by his father during a childhood in rural Scotland -- a subject he discussed at greater length in his previous, more focused memoir, "Not My Father's Son." For another, Cumming pauses occasionally to reflect on society and the human experience, whether it's musing about the meaning of personal authenticity, or speculating why his Tony Award-winning turn as a louche, hypersexual Emcee in the 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret" made such a splash. (His view: The performance gave America psychic release during the pressure-chamber prudery of the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal.)

Despite his candor about the challenges of his upbringing, Cumming doesn't want to be thought of as a brave survivor. "No one ever fully recovers from their past," he writes. "There is no cure for it. You just learn to manage and prioritize it." And manage he has. If the title of "Baggage" refers to the emotional burden Cumming carries with him from boyhood, it's also a witty acknowledgment of the globe-hopping lifestyle he has embraced as a stage and screen star, known for a shades-of-ebullient-satyr public persona, but probably most famous these days for channeling the political operative Eli Gold on CBS's "The Good Wife."

Cumming observes that his enthusiasm for variety in acting gigs — "There are very few actors who can say they made back-to-back films with Stanley Kubrick and the Spice Girls" he crows — mirrors a broader adventurousness, evident in his entrepreneurial gambles (e.g., his Cumming fragrance line), other sidelines (like hosting PBS's "Masterpiece Mystery!"), his humanitarian work (he won an Order of the British Empire award in part for his LGBT-rights activism) and his bisexuality.

"I am eclectic in all manner of ways," he writes. "Some might see it as flighty or ADD-ish. ... But truly I am excited by many things and I keep my mind and my heart open to everything. My lack of desire to be restrained in any form is central to my very being."

"Baggage" covers a good chunk of this unrestrained life, breezing back and forth in time but primarily focusing on a stretch between his nervous breakdown in the early 1990s, as childhood trauma resurfaced and his eight-year marriage to actress Hilary Lyon foundered, and 2007, when he wed illustrator Grant Shaffer.

Peppered with photos, the narrative takes in significant world and personal events, such as Cumming's experience in New York City on 9/11; intense affairs with lovers he keeps anonymous; and memorable acting jobs, including lesser-known credits like voicing "the White Rabbit in an 'Alice in Wonderland' — themed musical episode of 'Dora the Explorer' opposite Jewel and Mel Brooks (together at last!) ... and a poodle in an episode of 'Arthur' (for which I was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Robbed!)."

"Baggage" also brims with incidents that are objectively trivial, but so colorful and wryly recalled that they're entertaining. You might not want to hear about another celebrity's root canal, but when it's Alan Cumming undergoing dental surgery in his Nightcrawler makeup during the "X2: X-Men United" shoot, of course you do. All the chapter titles end in "y," adding to a general mood of effervescent archness. "Agony" evokes the stress and dazed euphoria of waiting for "Cabaret" to open on Broadway. "Debauchery" recounts indulgent down time as he waited to film "Eyes Wide Shut" with Kubrick, who at first glance, Cumming says, put him in mind of "a Hobbit version of Salman Rushdie."

Though packed with accounts of events both significant and trifling — did I mention the time he complimented Tina Turner on her toenail polish at the royal premiere of "Goldeneye?" — "Baggage" doesn't extend far enough chronologically to delve into many of the actor's more recent feats, such as his almost-one-man "Macbeth"; CBS's "Instinct," in which his character was a news-making instance of an openly gay lead figure on an American broadcast drama; or, a couple of mentions aside, "The Good Wife." Even a drawn-out dinner, it seems, can't do justice to such a venturesome life.

Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life

By Alan Cumming

Dey Street. 288 pp. $27.99